On their wedding night, Talicia and her husband kicked up a fuss the modifier “loud” would be an understatement. Accidentally falling off the bed, hitting their heads against the wall and scooching this way and that to a chorus of “Oh … sorry; wait—doh!” the couple quickly learned that Dave Matthews surely had more experienced individuals in mind we he cooed, “Oh and you come crash into me, baby …” as though it was just a metaphor.
The two words “I do” bring with them a radical shift in relationship for Christian couples. The physical body, once a place for restraint and reservation, is made available to both members of the union to be used for pleasure, intimacy and the transformation of two into one. For Talicia and her husband, this shift was both amazing and frightening.
This article originally appeared in issue No. 1 of RELEVANT (hence the Limp Bizkit reference).
Because a hands-off approach typified their dating relationship—and because sexuality and (oh the horror!) the logistics of intercourse were kept to what Talicia called the “missionary minimum” in their Christian community—sex brought with it questions about pleasure, positions, experimentation and host of other dos, don’ts and how-tos. It seemed God indeed reserved something amazing and special for their marriage. Where the instruction manual was for this, however, was anybody’s guess.
If there was a manual on the specifics of sexual intimacy between Christians, it might begin with the following comment from the article, “Christian Sex Rules” by counselors Melissa and Louis McBurney: “Doubt that God’s surprised at the intensity of our sexual desire or of its fulfillment.” After all, the sexual nature of the self appears time and again in biblical verse. You might remember that guy David? Or how about Solomon—or Amnon—or the Tamars of the Bible?
Sure of his words but less sure of his libido, it was Saint Augustine who famously prayed, “O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet.” As honest as Augustine was about the role sexuality played in his God-given nature, few Christians follow his lead. Open discussion about sexuality from the pulpit is rare. Talking about sexual purity as a goal is not the same as talking about the character or potency of an individual’s sexual nature.
To understand the character and potency of human sexuality, one place to start is The Harlot By the Side of the Road, by author Jonathan Kirsh. Recounting the often passed-over sexually scandalous portions of the Bible, the book presents sexuality as a common part of human nature. The stories are often shocking, but they are as honest as Augustine and full of hard, but necessary, lessons.
After confronting the character and potency of human sexuality, Christians are still left with confusion over the actual logistics of sex. Though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reports in a 2001 study, “The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year,” Christians are conditioned to understand the bulk of these sexual references as inappropriate, destructive or sinful outside of marriage. A quick ceremony, some cake-in-the-face and three rounds of the “YMCA” later, Christian newlyweds must find a way to reconcile this contradiction.
“Love Talk” is one way to begin this process. Linda De Villers, sex therapist and author of Love Skills, urges married couples to engage in open discussion about sexual performance. Talk about sexual limits, signs of pleasure, arousal, distaste, anxiety, discomfort or nervousness should rule, both in and out of the bedroom, if couples expect to establish a base for fulfilling physical intimacy.
For women, sexual fulfillment and honest communication go hand in hand.
Sexual fulfillment is “related to knowledge about their bodies, sexual competency, comfort with sexual desires and the ability to take responsibility for their own sexuality,” said Dr. Janice Epp of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
Cliff Penner, Christian author of Getting Your Sex Life Off to a Great Start, agreed. On the Closer To Truth program, “Who Needs Sex Therapy?” Penner said, “When the woman can lead sexually from within herself and the man can follow that lead, then they usually both end up being more satisfied … because so much more has to happen for women in the sexual experience.”
But as Epp mentioned, “Those who know the most about sex tend to enjoy it the most.” So in the early stages after marriage, when trial and error rules, a willingness for men and women to be honest creates a solid foundation for sexual intimacy and pleasure in years to come.
Open communication is also the road to take when dating or engaged. But, the road here is rockier, for two reasons: First, it’s a fact that Jesus saves. But less often discussed is the fact that Jesus doesn’t always save before an individual goes the way of Limp Bizkit and does “it all for the nookie.” Needless to say, Christians who date are likely to have contrasting sexual histories.
Couples can handle this predicament through disclosure. “If one or the other [partners] has been sexually active, I get them to talk about it so that the problem will not come back later, although it very often does,” said Mark Engelthaler, associate pastor at Richland Bible Fellowship Church. “This is an issue couples shouldn’t sweep under the carpet. It will rear its ugly head again and they need to be prepared for it,” throughout their dating, and even married life together.
Second, communication about sexually explicit topics, when sex itself is respected for marriage alone, can be a dilemma because it’s a turn-on. Revealing sexual histories or intimate encounters to one another, or engaging in protracted discussions about oral, or other “almost” forms of sex, often proves just too tempting, and is another line Pastor Engelthaler suggested couples draw in the sand, right from the start. “When a couple is dating, I believe that clear boundaries need to be set by the couple and then no more discussion. The more they talk, the more intimate they become and the more vulnerable they may be to crossing the boundaries.”
To handle this predicament, Engelthaler recommended couples “find an accountability partner—not each other—to ask about the boundaries” to give their relationship the best chance of remaining pure until marriage.
But couples who are dating or engaged can learn to talk about what is fundamental about sex, and how sex education—or a lack of it—influences the outlook of each person in the relationship. For example, how each person was taught about sex in the home or church can reveal deeper motives behind superficial opinions about sexuality and the human body as it is designed under God’s plan.
When a couple does decide to marry, the talk should continue in order to understand the broader implications of a sexual relationship.
These implications include topics like birth control and family planning, said James Laine, of Desert Rock Christian Counseling Center. To assist these discussions, Laine stressed that “premarital counseling is extremely important,” as it helps couples to become intimate intellectually before becoming intimate physically, after marriage. An old Jewish joke tells of Moses on his way down the mountain after meeting with God. With tablets in hand, Moses gives a holler, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Waiting for Moses to dish, a crowd gathers, teetering on the edge of anticipation until Moses says, “The good news is, I’ve talked him down from 24 to 10. The bad news is, adultery’s still in!”
The ancients have known it as long as anyone: Sex drives are part of our nature. And, sex also drives a part of our religious tradition. From the absolutely passionate Jewish tradition of reserving Shabbat for God—and for the carnal pleasures of sex—to the apostle Paul who finally gives in to the libido of his people in Corinthians 7, allowing them to marry, sex figures prominently into the lives of those who follow God.
A full life under God’s plan is one that recognizes this sexuality, but is also able to engage this gift in marriage, when and if people choose. Before marriage however, couples can establish a solid foundation for the physical intimacy that will follow. While dating, couples can establish boundaries for sexuality and intimacy while learning about the fundamental beliefs that influence personal opinions and approaches to sex. While engaged, dialogue about sexual histories and about the wider implications of a sexual relationship can build intellectual intimacy between partners.
And finally, after marriage … well, here let the Song of Solomon be a guide in its poetry, its transformation of two into one and also in its tempting tendency to just lay bare the honest beauty of sex.